Zaqy Mohamad, 44, is currently the only PAP MP who is grassroots adviser to two wards, spread across two different GRCs.
When Madam Halimah Yacob resigned as MP for Marsiling to contest the presidential election in 2017 (she became President of Singapore in September 2017), Mr Zaqy was tasked by the Party to take over her ward, which is part of Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC.
Mr Zaqy, who is the Minister of State (National Development and Manpower), was struck by how different it was from Keat Hong ward (Chua Chu Kang GRC), which he has been overseeing since 2006.
“It is a big contrast in terms of demographics and profile. Keat Hong comprises mostly middle-income residents, living in 4-room, 5-room and executive flats. In Marsiling, the estate is older, with more lower-income households, an estate with one of the highest number of rental flats in Singapore, and the minority population making up about 40 per cent, which is much higher than the national average,” said Mr Zaqy.
“The way you engage residents, the work you do on the ground, the kind of activities and outreach you do, is very different. So I work with our grassroots and agencies in the two divisions quite differently, to cover the very different demographics.”
More sustained approach for Marsiling
At Keat Hong, much fewer residents needed or qualified for social welfare schemes. Their concerns were over bread-and-butter issues as well as town developments, estate upgrading and new programmes. They were more concerned about their living environment, well-being and vibrancy around them.
The picture was very different at Marsiling. Recalling one of his first home visits, Mr Zaqy said: “In the rental flat, only one light bulb worked and it was in the kitchen. Basic things like this, which are usually taken for granted, was lacking.”
While he had worked with lower-income households from rental flats when he was a grassroots volunteer assisting former MP Mr Mohamad Maidin Packer Mohd in Kampong Ubi, this was his first experience looking after rental flat households as an MP.
“As an MP, you really have to think through from the systems perspective. What can we do to structure the engagements and assistance to the residents better?”
Rather than provide piecemeal assistance, he introduced more sustainable, ongoing programmes to Marsiling residents.
At the core is Marsiling Cares, launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in March 2019. Marsiling Cares strings together a series of programmes such as Community Scouting (confidence building), Progress Class (mentoring and tuition), M3’s KelasMateMatika (pre-school development) and Community Link (uplifting families with young children), which will also establish two social service hubs for under-privileged families in the estate. He hopes that beyond financial support, the holistic and family-oriented approach can help uplift our underprivileged and bring about social mobility.
Mr Zaqy said: “I often ask myself: Why are some families still living in rental flats after 15, 20 years? How can we uplift them? Perhaps we have been looking at these issues from a single dimension, but there’s more that we have to think of. What we then need is a multi-dimensional approach, with help from the community, government agencies, VWOs and corporate volunteers, to strengthen the families and to help them succeed. Ultimately, I hope to be able to help more of these families ‘graduate’.”
Established relationship with Keat Hong residents
“My relationship with Keat Hong residents is more established, over 13 years. One feature of the relationship has been about consensus. Residents have given very positive feedback about our Makan Kaki engagements. We organise meals – breakfast, lunch, dinners – where residents eat with their families and neighbours. What’s unique is that apart from social programming, we discuss topics of the day, gather their views and even co-create solutions such as re-designing the parks, setting themes for playgrounds or options to make our roads safer.”
“This has also helped our agencies translate meaningful developments to fulfil Keat Hong residents’ needs. They are excited about what’s in store up till 2025. We just opened our new Keat Hong CC, which is well-patronised 24 hours, and the new bus interchange. With Jurong Region Line adding an additional MRT station, the upgrading of Sunshine Place shopping mall to enhance F&B options, as well as SAFRA Chua Chu Kang, which will bring a covered swimming pool to the area in a park setting – all contribute to make Keat Hong more vibrant, with greater lifestyle and food options.”
Mr Zaqy observed that a lot of time is spent engaging with residents because he believed that Singaporeans want to have a say, and that by engaging them, it shows we are supporting active citizenry.
Strong ground presence needed
Mr Zaqy has so far contested in three general elections, in 2006, 2011 and 2015.
Viewing the changes over the years, he feels that the advent of social media has had the biggest impact on politics in Singapore and, consequently, how the general elections are conducted.
“What social media has enabled is how far, wide and quick information travels and how quickly people react to posts – true or otherwise,” he observed.
“I still remember the days prior to social media, and MPs or politicians would have two to three days to respond to issues. Today, you need to provide a response within 24 hours. It puts more stress on the whole of Government.”
“Your ground presence plays a bigger role, too, or someone would say: ‘I didn’t see my MP for the past five years’, or This guy is not doing his work.’ There is a lot more ground presence that is required as a result. This is where social media has also helped politicians expand their outreach and share updates with constituents, and widened our connections too.”
Increasingly vocal and fragmented demographic groups, empowered by social media, is another trend that the Government has to take into account. The response is to, in Mr Zaqy’s words, “do a lot more retail”.
“We have to find ways to outreach and go door-to-door to reach residents, almost like selling our policies and connecting door-to-door.”
He points out that each PAP MP will have to do his or her part in “representing the diverse interests of society”, by championing their own areas of expertise and concerns, and knowing the ground very well.
“As a Government, we need to cover all our bases,” he said. “But it’s also important not to over-tilt. Sometimes the right things to do may not be the most popular things.”